Rodgers & Hart’s Babes in Arms [Union Theatre]

Babes in Arms – Musical comedy with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and book by George Oppenheimer based on the original by Rodgers & Hart

Valentine White – James Lacey
Lee Calhoun – Stuart Pattenden
Gus Field – Ben Redfern
Steve Edwards – Peter Dukes
Seymour Fleming – Paddy Crawley
Terry Thompson – Anna McGarahan
Susie Ward – Catriona Mackenzie
Bunny Byron – Jenny Perry
Jennifer Owen – Carly Thoms
Phyllis Owen – Pip Mayo
Betty – Michelle Andrews
Nancy – Leonie Heath
Don – Daniel Bartlett
Bob – Josh Byrne
Peter – Andrew Ahern
Jerry – Ryan Bowes
Libby – Ceris Hine
Ann – Samantha Harrison
The Musicians: Sam Cable (keyboard & musical director), Jack Lowe (double bass) & Diogo Carvalho (drums)

David Ball – Director
Lizzi Gee – Choreographer
Richard Bates – Musical Supervisor
Katinka Taylor – Set & Costume Designer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 29 April, 2012
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1

Rodgers & Hart’s Babes in Arms is a show typical of its period. In the 1930s stage musicals were never destined to run for decades, as the turnover in productions was all-important, to meet great demand. If one show didn’t work, then there was always another one to follow it. Nowadays the cost of staging musicals is so enormous, they are built to run to recoup the expenditure: hence success stories such as The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia!, Chicago, Les Misérables, and The Lion King.

On Broadway back in 1937 Babes in Arms ran to nearly three-hundred performances; a hit show in those days. Today this would be considered a short run as most musicals cannot get their money back in under a year. After its initial run Babes in Arms virtually disappeared and was seldom revived professionally. However, in 1939 it was made into an MGM film starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, although the characters’ names were changed and most of the songs dropped, apart from the title number and a couple of others. The basis of the plot remained almost the same.

Babes in Arms is about a group of young performers who, having had the theatre taken from them, decide to do their show anyway. “Why not” – they say – “do it right here, in the barn?” We are not getting Rodgers & Hart’s original show because, since the 1950s, the book generally in use has been the revised version by George Oppenheimer who based it on Rodgers & Hart’s original. In the 1937 version, a gang of theatre apprentices are working in summer stock to avoid being sent to a work farm. Sponsored by a wealthy Southerner they are allowed to put on their revue provided the two black kids in the gang (played by the famous dancing Nicholas Brothers) do not appear. A sub-plot details the views of one of the other boys who is all for wealth-sharing when he is broke but denounces socialism after he comes into money, but then goes back to profit-sharing when he loses his wealth again. As well as Fayard and Harold Nicholas, the first cast of some fifty-five performers also featured Alfred Drake (of Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate and Kismet fame), Dan Dailey (Betty Grable’s favourite co-star) and Robert Rounseville (Carousel, Candide and Powell & Pressburger’s film of The Tales of Hoffmann), all making their Broadway debuts. This version was restored and staged in 1998 to some acclaim but the revised version is still in general use.

The two black kids do not appear, for obvious reasons and neither does the song ‘All dark people (are light on their feet)’. Most of the characters’ names have been changed and the songs are performed in a different order. Filleted of some of its point, plot-wise there seems to be very little left of the original except for the idea of stage apprentices putting on a show but being upstaged by Lee Calhoun, the writer of a play entitled The Deep North, who offers a better deal to the theatre manager. By the end of Act One, however, we have had more songs than plot. Still, the numbers are classics of their kind.

It is strange hearing songs one knows being performed in their show context. I speak of ‘I wish I were in love again’, ‘Where or When?’, ‘My funny Valentine’, ‘The lady is a tramp’ and ‘Johnny One-Note’, all of which are here in Babes in Arms. In context, they make sense. ‘I wish I were in love again’ is sung by Gus and Terry, the second leads, recalling the highlights of their relationship. ‘Where or when’ sees hero Val, would-be successful composer, falling for the wrong girl, Jennifer, daughter of Mrs Owen, the theatre’s sponsor, who does not want her daughter to be associated with the apprentices. ‘My funny Valentine’ is sung by Susie as a love-song to Val, and it has nothing to doing with St Valentine as is generally thought. Producer Bunny Byron gets to sing ‘The lady is a tramp’ and ‘Johnny One-Note’ for no particular reason, other than they are great songs, even if they don’t move the action along. But I’m not complaining.

The flimsy plot does not deter the company from believing in it. James Lacey as Val and Catriona Mackenzie as Susie make a charming leading couple, while Ben Redfern as the cheeky Gus and Anna McGarahan as wisecracking Terry provide a counterpoint as a battling twosome. Jenny Perry as Bunny makes a strong mark with two of the best songs in the show. Stuart Pattenden as Calhoun is a villain worthy of booing. Paddy Crawley as the theatre manager Seymour Fleming makes him as venal as any real impresario might be. But, all in all, it is a company show and the ensemble is simply terrific and a wonder at replicating the sort of dash and enthusiasm that their characters in the show feel about the theatre.

They sing and dance up a storm and have a whale of a time, as good a time as the audience. The original show had choreography by George Balanchine but here Lizzi Gee produces some hot hoofing to bring the house down, including an imaginative routine that involves suitcases. There are also a couple of tap numbers, always a pleasure. If this production cannot sport fifty-five performers, the eighteen-strong company really does the show proud, working their socks off to completely magnificent effect. The musicians back up the actors with the requisite relish and, even with limitations of space, Katinka Taylor’s designs are a simple and colourful joy.

  • Babes in Arms is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 until Saturday 12 May 2012
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Tickets on 020 7261 9876
  • Union Theatre

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